On Obits and costumes

This blog goes back to a previous profession. Before museums, before reference book writing and editing, I was in costume and fashion making and teaching.   Two of this week’s deaths stirred responses from that older part of me.

The first is my memory of the great costume designer Willa Kim, who had an amazing eye for fabric and color as well as spectacular sang-froid.   I had the pleasure of working with her on exhibition projects later. But the thing that came to mind when I heard that she had died at 99 was her work with Robert Joffrey. Remembrances, set to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, was one of his last choreographic works, for the City Center Joffrey Ballet’s 1973 season. Willa had championed the use of a new fabric, Milliskin, which revolutionized dance costumes (and activewear) with its circular stretch. It took dye and paint beautifully as f it was water color paper, but could only be sewn with a 5-needle overlocking Merrow sewing machine.  Unitards were skintight and had no seam allowance so the last thing you could want was any kind of change.  Willa’s costumes were beautifully dyed and over-painted in ombres on Milliskin unitards that referenced 19th century clothes. I was working in the Ray Diffin Costume Shop, primarily as a shopper and researcher, but was there when the word came from the dress rehearsal that everyone should stay late. Joffrey had decided that the men should take off their jackets. But the costumes did not have jackets, they had painted lapels. Now, they had to have jackets.  We spent the rest of that day unpicking Merrow seams so that the shop could build jackets with real lapels for that choreographic moment. I remember holding pieces of costumes and needing to report that: “I am Paul Sutherland’s left arm.”   Willa never screamed, never swore, she modeled the ideal behavior by an artist when a collaborating artist has a badly timed stroke of genius.

My other response to one of this week’s deaths has to do with the photograph of Carrie Fisher that the New York Times ran with its front page obituary (credited to LucasFilm Ltd., via Everett Collection). She was seated with her legs stretched out, wearing Princess Leia’s white dress (from the hologram and the first rescue). Like most people, I had responded to that dress as a cliché, for a damsel in distress and was thrilled when her costumes changed to become working clothes, suitable for flying, fighting and rescuing the galaxy.   The photograph reminded me of the pose used in a number of 1910s Isadora Duncan portraits, so I could also imagine that the flowing white gown and dark hair with the center parting could have been a tribute to the choreographer. See, for example, the NYPL Digital Collections’ https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-cf88-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Then, I thought about the costumes designed for Amidala in Episodes I – III (designed by Trisha Biggar). They were architectural, allowing for almost no movement. Maybe we were all wrong – compared to her mother’s outfits, maybe the white gown was that galaxy’s version of 19th century reform dress. Bloomers for Jedis are somehow appropriate for Carrie Fisher. You can see the costume in the exhibition Star Wars: The Power of Costume, which is now at the Denver Art Museum. http://denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/starwars Or see the movie(s) again.




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